It is an irrefutable fact that we should help each other. However sometimes help to others poses some danger to either us or others. In Peter Singer’s essay “Famine Affluence, and Morality” Peter Singer argues that we ought, morally, to prevent starvation due to famine. Singer begins by saying that assistance has been inadequate as richer countries prioritize development above preventing starvation. Singer then states that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad” (404) and assumes that it is uncontroversial enough to be accepted without justification.
He then next raises the linked premise that we morally ought to prevent something ‘bad’ from happening as long as we have the means and it does not entail compromising on anything of ‘comparable moral significance’, using the analogy of a drowning child and hence assuming the principle _of “_universalizability” (405). As Singer writes, he attempts to justify why he feels that it is within our means to do so without sacrificing anything morally significant, and concludes that we hence morally ought to prevent starvation due to famine.
Singer anticipates objections and the first of which is that as the drowning child is nearer to us than the starving Bengali, the moral obligation is therefore seemingly reduced. Singer responds that this merely affects the likelihood of who receives aid first, but it still holds that we should be indiscriminate with the amount of help given to people especially when the world is becoming a “global village” (405). Singer also anticipates the objection that there are other people who are standing around not doing anything anyway. He contends that there is a psychological difference but the moral implications are still the same as it is absurd to be less obliged to help the drowning child even if there were many others idling around; likewise for the starving Bengali.
However, Singer’s drowning child analogy, though inductively strong to some extent, is not cogent enough to deny the fact that the helping agent in question is exposed to differing sets of knowledge in the two different scenarios. In the drowning child case, the agent can determine with reasonable certainty that the child’s fate lies entirely in his hands. There is no issue being affected by any bystanders or not knowing what kind of assistance to deliver, and he can be confident that there are minimal unforeseen and undesirable consequences resulting from his efforts. In donating to countries, the agent cannot say the same about the level of certainty with regards to the help he is providing. The agent doesn’t know if there are any better means of help available or if the money he donates will ever reach the ones in need. While we are entitled to morally judge inaction in the case of the drowning child, we can’t judge as harshly for the case of overseas aid as Singer attempts to do so here.
Singer also makes an assumption about the innocence of the drowning child. We cannot say for sure if the suffering of others is thoroughly undeserved. The money provided might end up in the hands of children manipulated by bad adults or the government for example. Essentially, Singer’s principle of universality fails to hold out here, as the immorality of not giving money cannot compare to the immorality of not saving a drowning child.
Singer then attempts to qualify another point. If starvation could be curbed given that everyone gave X amount of money, there is no reason why one should give more than others and hence one should give only a certain amount. However, it seems plausible that people should give as much as possible since not everyone will give a set amount and, as it is known, giving more than the set amount will naturally prevent more suffering. Paradoxically, if everyone _does_ give more than the set amount – there will be too much money and this is a worse off outcome as people’s sacrifices will count for nothing. Singer’s response to this is that, however unlikely this outcome is, while there may be unfairness as those giving later will not be obligated to give as much once they are able to determine how much more money is needed to be contributed, it is still better than letting people starve.
In view of his points so far, Singer is aware of the fact that our moral frameworks would be affected because giving is traditionally considered a form of charity, not a form of duty. Singer attacks this by reiterating his point, based on the principle of comparable moral significance, that we ought to donate our luxury money, which is any income beyond marginal utility, as otherwise spending it on clothes to look good rather than keep warm would be preventing another person from being liberated from starvation. Ultimately, Singer points out that, although such change may seem too drastic, people should still revise their mindset that it is wrong to believe that while a charitable man deserves praise, a non-charitable man should not condemned.
Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” Trans. Array _Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing_. Adam Whitehurst and Kerri A. Cardone. 7th. Boston, MA: Bedford/ St. Martins, 2011. 402-414. Print.
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